Hello. Happy 2015.
So, it’s the dying embers of the Christmas holidays and I’m sat with my wife, watching a string of ‘Friends’ episodes (recently purchased box-set, second-hand). We’re currently in the midst of season 2, and Ross has just kissed Rachel. Naturally, we chose this moment to turn the commentary on and, of course, the writers are discussing the difficulties in setting up the Ross/ Rachel relationship that underpins the entire series, at an emotional level.
Now, over the past 72 hours or so, I’ve come to appreciate the subtle craft at work in ‘Friends’. And I’ve also been scrutinising the series from a 21st century perspective, thinking carefully about the social isms at play in late 90s white mainstream America. In ‘The One With the List’, one episode after Ross and Rachel kiss for the first time, Julie, Ross’ non-Rachel girlfriend, has been unceremoniously dumped. Which, as it turns out, doesn’t really matter.
This got me thinking. Why doesn’t Julie matter? Should she matter? Why would her part be difficult to write? And most importantly, why isn’t she white? Then a lightbulb flashed above my head and I explained to my wife, what I’m about to explain to you. (Cue thunder)
Julie is ‘Asian’ (as the Americans put it) and this is a fact that goes unannounced by the ‘Friends’ friends. The relevance of this is simple: Julie had to be different. She had to be ‘other’. Think about it: if Julie was as white and mainstream as Rachel, she couldn’t survive as a character, conceptually. She would be too normal to be anything other than a viable competitor for Ross’ affections, which would, therefore, make her a figure of pure hatred for loyal viewers. This unfiltered hatred for the hypothetical white non-Rachel would sour the viewer’s experience of the show to such a warped extent, that it would be unwatchable.
See, on one level, ‘Friends’ exploits modern liberal ideals in order to allow emotionally devastating interactions to take place, affecting its core characters. Julie, is just about different enough to not really matter as a character, but we are fond of her because liberal sensibilities demand that of us. I have no idea if this is a deliberate move on the part of the writers, but I can see the logic in casting someone racially different in a role that could garner spite if she was ‘equal’ to Rachel.
The same thing can be said of Charlie, the Afro-American paleontologist who eventually becomes Ross’ love interest in season whatever. She is absolutely normal and attuned to the social rules of the ‘Friends’ friends, but, crucially, she is not-white. So, again, the viewer’s liberal sensibilities act as a buffer to any accidental hatred that might tea stain the purity of the ‘Friends’ experience.
Going back a season to the very beginning of the series, let’s examine Ross’ first love interest – Carol. She really should be a figure of pure disdain. Her decision to abandon marriage with Ross kick-starts the whole will-they-won’t-they saga with Rachel, but, of course, she is ‘different’ too, inasfar as being gay is being different. The ‘otherness’ of her character, forces us to soften our feelings towards her. In fact, the writers inadvertently invite us to self-congratulate ourselves on how accepting we are, because we, (like Rachel) welcome Carol into the fold in her role of Ben’s mom.
There’s more. Season something or other sees the introduction of Emily, a love interest that pushes Ross so far away from Rachel that he (very nearly) gets married – potentially levelling the will-they-won’t-they seesaw for good. Now, Emily is indeed white and she is also straight, but she just happens to be… non-American. Accidental? Perhaps, but her otherness is in keeping with the theory I’m outlining in this essay. Emily, to avoid being a figure of derision, cannot be from the same socio-cultural universe as Rachel.
Interestingly, Ross’ various girlfriends also do a lot to endear him to us. His insistence on pairing up with all creeds, colours and sexualities of woman paint him as not so much forward-thinking as socially naive. Much is made of his inexperience with women (Carol was the only woman he had slept with before Julie). It is almost as though he doesn’t realise that he should be with the Rachels of this world. He almost demotes himself away from Alpha male status through his choice of weird women; gay, Asian, British, Black…
Anyway, happy 2015. More on the socio-political undertones of ‘Friends’ as I crawl through the boxset.